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Managing Partner: Gowlings grows from its Ottawa roots

|Written By Jim Middlemiss
Managing Partner: Gowlings grows from its Ottawa roots

Unlike many national law firms, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP’s roots weren’t Bay Street. Rather, the firm grew from its base in Ottawa and over the past decade has morphed itself into a legal heavyweight, building on its expertise in intellectual property and merging along the way with top regional firms from across Canada. Today, it encompasses eight offices, including one in Moscow, and about 700 lawyers, making it one of Canada’s biggest firms. Managing partner Scott Jolliffe talks about the challenges of growing a national law firm.

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What’s the biggest challenge to managing a national law firm?

Managing a law firm is really all about managing people. Getting the right people, inspiring them to do the right things, motivating them, keeping them interested, training them, and, these days, retaining them.

What’s the trick to motivating and retaining people?

Making sure that they get good work and giving them the right training and skills to do it well.

How do lawyers judge good work versus bad work?

Usually, it’s challenging work — work that’s not simply routine, but is out of the ordinary and has an important goal to it.

In terms of hiring and retaining, what do you offer people here that makes it different from another firm?

Learning the practice of law is really a hands-on program. It’s mentoring relationships between younger, less experienced lawyers and more senior experienced lawyers. It’s important to have mentoring relationships throughout the firm. That’s number one. Number two is to also offer professional development training programs that younger people need as they are progressing through their career.

Your growth has been largely through mergers. What have been some of the challenges from mergers and what have you learned?

Gowlings has grown not simply through mergers but through greenfield operations as well. For example, in Hamilton, Ont., and in Vancouver we started with just a handful of lawyers and we grew out from there. But we have also grown through merging with other substantial firms in local jurisdictions as in Calgary and Montreal. The challenges are different. In greenfielding, it’s recruiting the right people that fit within the culture of the firm and have the same goals and aspirations as the rest of the firm and then in constant recruiting to build the critical mass of the office. The challenge that a merger presents is in taking a firm with generally a different culture and different skills and no knowledge of the existing firm and integrating all those things into one common platform. . . . A large merger is really all about integrating people and the way in which they do things so that the merged firm shares a common culture.

Are you a single profit pool?

Gowlings is what some people call a single profit pool firm. Net income generated by the firm is shared by partners right across the country regardless of the city they come from. That pool is divided up based on their relative contribution. The problem in doing it otherwise is you simply inspire behaviour that is directed to maximizing profit in the separate pools. Our view is that the only way to get partners right across the country working together is to have them all sharing from the same profit pool. The trend clearly is toward single profit pool partnerships. A number of firms came together through mergers in a way that had them retain divided profit pools but most of those firms have changed to a single profit pool.

How important is the seven sister notion and are firms like yours trying to crack it?

The designation of seven sisters is an interesting one and certainly a designation that leads to an awful lot of press and publicity. The firms considered to be the seven sisters are excellent law firms. It all depends on how you want to define a group. The seven sisters tend to be those firms that are practising at King and Bay and that are quite Toronto-centric and who define their success on the basis of the large deals they do. Gowlings is quite a different firm. We have a very strong corporate finance and M&A practice but that is by no means the major part of what we do or the one area we aspire to be the best in. . . . While Gowlings would like to be considered an eighth sister in its corporate finance and M&A practice, and soon will be based on our current growth, that’s really not what we want to be as a law firm. I like to think of Gowlings as a Cinderella, the law firm that means much more to many more people than Toronto-centric King and Bay M&A practices.

  • Guest
    I would have appreciated more comment on financial demands and especially how the firm is working to make its services available to as many clients in need as possible, a goal which firm founders and pro-bobo supporters not to mention prominent members of the bench, see as essential to the operational necessities of law firms.